Christmas Carol Movies, Stave II: A Christmas Carol (1938)

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My own natural inclination in film appreciation is an almost knee-jerk mistrust of mainstream Hollywood. I associate the movie business – particularly when the studio system reigned supreme – with making films as product. Box office profits were priority one in in the rising industry of the 1930s and 1940s; artistic merit often seemed an accidental occasional by-product. With all that being said, however, sometimes the sheer, brutal competency of a major Hollywood studio has its advantages, too. 

After the jump, Dickens emerges from the darkness

A passing glance at the intervals of the adaptations of A Christmas Carol that we’ll be reviewing shows that there’s a predictable interval for how these movies get released. Every 10-20 years or so, it seems time for a new version, with a new cast, new director, and a new attempt to add to everyone’s holiday watch list. But with the 1938 adaptation (titled to match the original as “A Christmas Carol”) we’re just three years removed from the smeary gloom of the Twickenham Studios effort. One can image though, that major Hollywood studio execs sat and watched the near-amateurish efforts displayed in that earlier movie and saw the potential for some real profits to be had simply by making a competent version of the Dickens classic.

This then appears to be the operational sentiment behind the 1938 Christmas Carol, with Louis B Mayer and Joseph Mankiewicz at MGM setting the wheels in motion for a full-on Hollywood big-budget adaptation. There’s nothing artistically spectacular about the movie they ended up with. But honestly…that’s kind of just exactly what was needed here. This version just looks and sounds good. It is so competently executed that watching it back to back with 1935’s Scrooge, it’s hard to believe that this version was made just three years later: it seems like a movie decades ahead. MGM’s money bought state-of-the-art equipment and professional crews, sound personnel, stagehands and set designers who all knew their business.

Especially interesting to me is that the task of directing this incredibly expensive production was handed to one of MGM’s lesser-known directors in Edwin Marin, with the screenplay duties assigned to one of the youngest writers in the MGM stable in Hugo Butler. Perhaps that’s because Mankiewicz was so sure of the story in the original source material that he didn’t want anyone of particularly artistic ambition to screw things up. More likely is that MGM knew they’d be dictating some saccharine-sweet changes to the original story, and wanted two pliably agreeable newcomers who wouldn’t raise much of a ruckus about making those wholesale changes. 

Spooky factor: 4 Marleys out of 10. 

Part of having a competent director and film crew means also being able to execute a double exposure to create see-through ghosts. Thus, 1938’s Christmas Carol gives us our first talkie-era motion picture look at Jacob Marley. There’s also a uniquely weird bit with Marley’s visit in this version that involves Scrooge calling out his window for the city watch to come up and chase out the intruder. They do so, and of course find no one there. As soon as they leave, Marley re-appears. It’s possible that Marin and Butler were worried that audiences might need some help to understand the ghostly nature of Marley due to that ridiculous invisibility thing from the 1935 adaptation, so this bit reinforces that the glowing transparent guy is indeed a ghost.

And here, I suppose, we should talk about how to tell which version of A Christmas Carol you’re getting – the original full length novel, or Dickens’ edited, recitation version. The different versions have a markedly varying effects on how creepy the initial scenes are.  In the book version, when Scrooge first gets home (and after he sees Marley’s face in his door knocker) as he heads up the wide stairs to his suite of rooms, he imagines he sees a funeral hearse leading the way. Later, after his ghostly business partner departs, Scrooge looks out his window and sees the air teeming with other phantoms and their chains, doomed to a similar fate as Marley. Both of those ghostly scenes are excised from the recitation version. And neither is present in the 1938 adaptation either.

Otherwise, we do get to see the other Christmas spirits in this production. Lionel Braham’s portrayal of the Ghost Of Christmas Present is fantastic, and essentially creates the character everyone else is going to copy for the next 80 years. That being said, the creepy, doom-filled Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is perhaps just a touch too…diminutive…to be really scary, but at least they’ve made an effort here, and it’s certainly better than the shadowy finger from the Sir Seymour version of the tale.

Canonical Factor: 3 Dickenses out of 10. 

All that MGM money and competency comes at a cost, and in this case the price is the too-sweet by half, almost sunshiney tone of the 1938 Christmas Carol. Dickens allows his original story to turn dark – very dark – about halfway through the visits of each of the first two Christmas spirits. (The final spirit – draped as the Grim Reaper – is obviously pretty melancholic stuff throughout.) Louis Mayer and Joseph Mankiewicz weren’t going to roll the dice on allowing their production to veer too far away from having a happy holiday disposition throughout, and that results in some very curious choices and omissions with this adaptation.

For instance, as professionally filmed and lit up as the 1938 Christmas Carol is in comparison to 1935’s Scrooge, the lighting is honestly almost TOO good at times. Scrooge & Marley’s counting house should be a dark and forbiddingly cold and inhospitable place, but in this production it is lit up like the family den in the Dick Van Dyke Show. And the Cratchit home seems, large, warm, and welcoming…which probably isn’t what Dickens was going for.

The omissions are also rather glaringly bad. The Ghost of Christmas Past tries to take Scrooge from a (sadly too-short) scene with Old Fezziwig to see his “darker, later days”, but Reginald Owen is having none of that, and that’s that. No Belle romance for young adult Ebenezer, and no rejection of their engagement by her later on – it’s all cut. And with the Ghost of Christmas Present, we get the whole “Tiny Tim is dying” thing out of the way early, so that the rest of this sequence can focus on happy times with the Cratchits and the nephew Fred. Interestingly, with this middle Ghost, we do start the bit from the books about the grocery stores and butchers…but then things quickly change to a church scene that isn’t in the book, and two full, treacly minutes of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”. It feels as if MGM is explicitly saying: “Take that and shove it up your organized religion rant, Dickens.”

Non Canonical Factor (How good is the stuff they added that isn’t in the original story?): 6 Muppets out of 10.

As should be obvious from reading the above, the 1938 Christmas Carol takes quite a few liberties with the original source material. Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, becomes almost a co-star in this version.  In a departure from Dickens, he and his girl aren’t married (yet) in this production, just engaged, as Fred lacks the position and salary yet to make things official. Fred is present throughout the story here, seemingly seen here, there, and everywhere in the film. 

As far as Cratchit goes, in this production Scrooge actually FIRES poor old Bob on Christmas Eve, which may be a bit of a nod to the hard-luck 1930s audiences, some of whom were likely to envy Cratchit for having had any sort of employment at all.

But here’s the kind of crazy thing: all of this stuff sort of actually works! It certainly is more satisfying than it has any right to be. By firing Cratchit, Reginald Owen takes on a level of mean-ness and darkness his portrayal desperately needs. And by having the reformed Scrooge help Fred with a partnership and marriage, it’s actually kind of a nice moment that really fits the narrative. The script here even figures out a way to get Scrooge, Fred, Fred’s betrothed, and the whole Cratchit family into the final scene together. It’s so overly sweet and melodramatic that it’ll make your teeth ache, but it does rather wrap the loose ends of the story at least as elegantly as Dickens did when he was rushing to complete the original.

Scrooge Factor: 5 Bah Humbugs out of 10.

Reginald Owen wasn’t the original choice to play Scrooge in the 1938 Christmas Carol. Mankiewicz had his eye on Lionel Barrymore for the role, but Barrymore became ill and decided he couldn’t handle the grind of the production schedule; he was the one who apparently suggested Owen to take his place. (Barrymore will play his own part in the Christmas movie pantheon in the role of Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life some 8 years later.)

Reginal Owen is – like this movie itself – staggeringly competent. His Scrooge is sufficiently Scroogey early on, and sufficiently converted later on. If anything, Owen plays a more vulnerable, fearful Scrooge, and that serves the character well. Owen allows his Scrooge to get a bit too cheery almost from the outset of the ghostly visits, though, and poorly conveys Scrooge’s initial anger and denial and give-and-take with the various ghosts.

Unintentionally Creepy Tiny Tim Factor: 3 crutches out of 10.

Terry Kilburn is a handsome little kid, and his Tiny Tim looks like he gets at least a few hours in the hair and makeup trailer every morning. Thus, there’s not a lot creepy about him…that is, until they put the cooked Christmas goose down on the table in front of him. Then for whatever reason, Tim asks if he can stroke the goose, which really should be one of the great euphemisms of all time. (Honestly, the entire script is filled with moments like this, which can make a modern family viewing a bit uncomfortable for the half-dozen times everyone tries to hold back from yelling “That’s what she said!” at the TV screen.)

Final thoughts:

The 1938 Christmas Carol is something of a proof-of-concept for Dickens as a Christmas IP. By dint of it’s sheer professional filmmaking, it solves a lot of the issues present in the poor 1935 effort. It is also the happiest version of the story, and showings on military bases and in USO auditoriums during the darker days of World War II likely made this version feel definitive for that entire generation for all the years of their lives.

It’s also likely that British audiences, with greater familiarity to the Dickens original, found the sunny disposition of this production to be just too, too much. And so as we proceed further into the Christmas Carol movie pantheon, we’re about to get our first legitimate contender for a definitive version of the story.

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